Perhaps you've gathered that my times at the senior's home loom large in my head all week long, long after I've entered in my special numerical code to open the main door to allow me to leave the premises. It now dawns on me that my freedom to do so isn't for just anyone.
I come home afterward to my empty house, and feel again that dogged catch in the back of my throat as I replay my morning's memories. Today when I asked one beautiful, old soul how I could be praying for her this week, she looked at me with fervent, watery eyes and responded: please ask God to let me die so I can just go home. How does one go about praying that? I suppose I just take her words at face value and ask for what she asks for, knowing that a pain-plagued lady on the cusp of her 94th birthday knows what she needs and doesn't need. My 38-year-old naivete doesn't really have a role to play here. What on earth do I know about anything? Visiting these people so intimately familiar with chronic pain and suffering helps me see that I don't know nearly as much as I used to think I did. Frankly, sitting down at the keyboard after a time there seems more than a bit rich to me now. Is it me who has to press my call button, trying to summon an overworked RN to help me lay down in my own bed because my back pains me so badly I can't sit upright in my wheelchair any longer? Am I the one plagued with bedsores that just won't heal? Do I drool down my own front, fully aware of myself as I do so, poignantly lacking the requisite ability to stop this dignity defying thing?
Today this fragmented lady told me the terrible story of her own son's death as a little boy, who - naughty thing - climbed up on the school roof to fling whirly-gigs off its edge, though he'd been told not to countless times before. The floating, twirling, exciting beauty of it was too much temptation for him to resist. Roofs are dangerous places for seven-year-olds, invincible though they think they may be. This aching, remembering woman is fragmented not just because her body won't work properly anymore, but also because she's wheeling around on this earth with a prominent segment of her heart missing. That chunk of it went away when her littlest man did. I think he must be hurling whirly-gigs in Heaven today, only safely now. Soon, I'm going to stop typing so that I can ask God to help his Mama join him. I can tell that she misses him a lot.
I now reside in that place in marriage where the heady thrill of supercharged romance has slipped inconspicuously into the past. I find - contrary to what I may have expected as a novice 21-year-old first entering the institution - that I like it here best of all.
It is now only the rare giddy thrill that flashes through my days spent with this man. Instead, I feel his love imbedded deep in my core, saturating and hydrating me. There is such freedom to find in sharing life with someone who knows everything about you, including the very most horrible bits, and who still - despite this deep knowledge - chooses to love you anyway. There is a profound and humbling comfort here.
While the JoyBoy and I were dating, I remember thinking on many occasions, what if he knew X about me? or if he ever found Y out about me, he'd change his tune. But over the years as each of these myriad X's and Y's came to light, I found that the knowledge of them only seemed to deepen our intimacy. After a time, they were easy to share as he had laid such a foundation of acceptance. I don't think anyone has ever loved me so patiently.
It's not all prune juice and roses, though. Not by a country mile. I'm married - I think I've mentioned - to an extremely dominant person. Perhaps by now you've noticed that I too share this quality. Alas, we are two people who almost always think that we are right. This combination can sometimes ignite some explosively flamboyant fights. So many times I find myself thinking, why can't this man just obey me? I know that he's wondered the same thing himself about me on many occasions because he's told me so more than once. And yet I know for certain that I'd truly hate it if he did. I love that my life's partner is so stunningly proficient at standing up to me, though it ticks me off so ferociously at times.
As we grow older (and we do so at an alarming rate it seems), we grow just a bit wiser with each passing year and we choose our battles a little more judiciously. We are inclined to be more generous with one another and it's slowly dawning on us both that sometimes the best thing to do is to just zip it. I realize now that it's not a requirement of a healthy marriage that I agree with every word emitted from his beautiful mouth - and vice versa. We can disagree at times and not make a big stink about it. This, while maybe seeming like a small thing to those less dominant among you, is a really big deal for us. We are two people who like it best when everyone we know and love agrees with us on every. single. point. And so this softening around our edges is welcome and good.
It's good to have been married almost seventeen years. I like this place; it's cosy here hanging with my best friend.
I've met a new friend who also allows large chunks of her days to be eaten up by a process that sometimes finds her dazed, bewildered and just a bit stunned at how much time has just somehow escaped her notice. She's a writer. And far cooler than any claim to fame that I could ever hope to bandy about - she's got the very same name as a famous and published author. She good-naturedly tells her - clearly favorite - joke over and over again, asking me if I don't recognize her name because she's so famous. Only the spellings are different. That and the fact that this particular lady is confined to her wheelchair in the senior's home, where she's lost control over her bodily functions.
This lady is a living, breathing, life lesson. We sit together in a room where I do typing for her because her hands have curled in on themselves, making the task very difficult for her. Because she prefers to have the door closed for privacy, we sit together in the tiny space that is her room, breathing in the organic smells her rebellious body persists in creating, despite her own best attempts to wrangle some control into the equation. And as we do, she is dignity Itself. I want to be just like her when it's my turn at this life-stage. We don't comment on the smells rampaging angrily about the room, of course, and though she can't even lift her head comfortably up off her chest, she tells me about her childhood, which is a place in her memories that feels most familiar to her now.
Though she was married for decades and decades and had five pulsating, life-filled children of her own, the Figure of Great Importance now in her thoughts and conversation is her larger-than-life stepfather. She'll talk about him endlessly if you're willing to listen. He - and his superhero-esque shenanigans - is whom she writes about. I learn a lot about him as I re-type the tattered pages telling his story.
I wonder if these twilight people revert back to their childhoods because it was life's happiest time for them or for some other, unrelated reason. Perhaps it's just a bare-bones scientific matter of the newest neuro-pathways degenerating first. I wonder if people shackled with unhappy childhoods revert back to that time in their lives, too. This idea strikes me as being singularly sad.
But this happy, writing, Coca Cola-imbibing woman seems anything but sad. I love that if it is her lot to dwell in a place not the present, hers is a happy place filled with people she loves and admires. She spends her days, crippled but mostly content, doing what she loves behind the privacy of a closed door. People offer her up the dignity of knocking before entering and she is treated well by all who enter.
Before I leave, she asks if I would trouble myself to open up the plastic wrapper on the new mouse pad she's just ordered from a nearby drugstore. She chuckles as she watches me do it because she gets an artless kick out of the fact that on its surface are two kittens who can now play with the computer's mouse. We should all be so lucky to find joy so easily and in such small things.
I'm still a newbie to the world of online shopping, but through conversations with some of the more experienced among you, I'm beginning to see that doing so doesn't necessarily ensure that a middle American named Festus will abscond with my identity and corresponding credit, which he'll promptly then use to buy himself a new Escalade.
So in the fervent hope that Festus and his ilk will leave me alone, look what I just bought!
She lies in her bed, trapped there, despite her wish to be elsewhere. Her wig sits neatly on the pillowcase next to her and without it, she looks impossibly tiny and helpless. The wig lends her gravitas somehow, even though the brazen, false brown of it is anything but flattering. It somehow shouts, citizen! community member! contributor! in it's perch atop her head. She looks lonely without it, and much, much older.
I ask her if she'd like a hand massage today but she can't hear. She lifts her head and fumbles with her hearing aid, which has been giving her a lot of trouble lately. I repeat my message with a progressively rising cadence and I can tell when understanding penetrates because she smiles. I think, looking at her, how isolated she must feel from so much of the rest of the world. She pushes her dry hand out to me and I cradle it, thinking how lucky I am to do so. I haven't touched a hand that feels like this in a long time. I feel very aware of the delicate bones just underneath its papery surface. I rub lotion into my own hands first, trying to warm it just a bit and then begin to smooth it over the skin of hers. There are purple blotches haphazardly spread out over this skin and tentatively, I rub them, too. I'm relieved to see that it doesn't hurt her. I chat inconsequentially as I rub and I can see, though she doesn't say so, that she loves it. I don't want you to go she says and I assure her that I've got no immediate plans to do so. Her hands are a microcosm of herself. They are so helpless and unable to salve themselves and yet in such dire need of the very things they can't do on their own. I feel a surge of satisfaction to smooth the unscented lotion into her dry skin and see it transformed for a time.
I ask her about her husband, who has been gone now from her life for far too long. Ah. I loved him. He was a good man. He didn't like to talk much, though. We were married for 34 or 43 years. I can't remember which one. She then proceeds to tell me about the circumstances of his death, which happened at home while he was alone with her. Listening to her story, it occurs to me that each day with my own husband is a gift and that I'm wise to view these individual days together in that light.
As I look on, ignorantly and from the sidelines, it seems to me that old age is largely about the looking back upon life. There doesn't seem to be a lot of present-tense sort of existence there in the senior's home. The happiest elderly people I encounter are the ones who have nice things to look back upon, the ones who enjoyed nice relationships with nice people, the ones who have colored their lives with more primary yellow and less depleting gray. The ones who seem brittle and sad are the ones whose younger lives could probably have been described in the same way. Brittle and sad. Watching it all makes me know in my bones that I want to be one of the yellow ones. Clearly this means that I'd better be sure to color my current life in the same way. These are the salad days that I'll be looking back upon with fondness. I'm going to try to make them as bright as possible, for I see now that they'll need to last me for decades.
There is a fictitious woman who is real. The fiction lies in the fact that she is a puzzle comprised of the pieces of many real women I've encountered over the years. Beautiful women I've been blessed to call friends. This is the part that is real. See if you can't find that aspect of her that owes itself to you, because there's no doubt that you are beautiful in many ways.
The first thing you notice about her is her open, generous smile. She isn't one who furtively pretends she can't see you, though you know full well that she can. Instead, she has a smile for everyone and the wealth in her heart overflows to lightly touch the lives of those she encounters that day, even peripherally. She wishes the whole world well and though flawlessness isn't hers to claim, she smiles at you with both her eyes and her mouth. She's generous that way and to be withholding doesn't give her a nasty little kick.
She doesn't hold to the (faltering) allusion that her children are perfect, despite the evidence they consistently present to the rest of the world. She loves them unconditionally though and doesn't feel the compulsion to try to live her own disappointed life over again through their newer, less damaged ones, vicariously and viciously. Her joy is to see them rise above her in every way, exceeding and surpassing. There is no scarcity mentality with her. She likes to think of herself as the wind beneath their wings, a la Bette Midler.
She is clean and subtly sweet-smelling. Even working out alongside her, you catch only the occasional whiff of a beautiful shampoo. She likes to look her best, though she isn't bound by the need to.
She is intelligent, but doesn't feel compelled to prove it to anyone. She rests contentedly inside herself and just is. Her brain is active and interesting and she always has something to contribute conversationally. She makes you think, long after having left her, because the things she says are insightful and stretching. She would never try to make an intellectual point to the discomfiture of another, though. Her kindness trumps her intellect, if it ever need come to that.
She is creative. Her creativity manifests itself in many different ways. She has sometimes been known to use the very clothes on her body as her palette. She builds furniture even - when the whim strikes - she's so undaunted by societal gender limits wishing to foist themselves upon her. When she takes photographs, they seem at times to divulge a brief glimpse of Heaven Itself, the unearthly clarity of them is so manifest. Even the meals she cooks are beautiful works of something very akin to art. Rather than content herself with serving the same rotation of seven or so things time over and over again, ad nauseum, she researches new and lovely things to make for her family. Things like Lasagna-Chicken Florentine and Boka Dushi. The prettier sounding their names, the more inclined she feels to recreate them in her own kitchen. She's talented and strong and whole. Her house is clean and welcoming. You know you can relax there and that she makes strong, good coffee with cream.
She knows that the best gifts she can give her children are a saving faith in Christ, a personal wholeness and a deep and growing love for their father. She doesn't forget to take care of herself because she knows that whole people beget whole people. She understands deep in her bones that respect in parenting runs in both directions and that you can't truly have one without the other. She knows that her little flock watch her actions and her words intently and at all times - even and perhaps especially - when they seem to be doing so least. She knows that the phrase do what I say and not what I do rings hollow and is in the best case scenario, meaningless. In its ugliest incarnation, it is damaging and undermining and relationship destroying.
She has other healthy women in her life. She is quick to laugh and competes with you to talk. With her, you are constantly following one conversational rabbit trail or another because she's inadventently veered you off that way with all her effervescent enthusiasm. She's frequently grabbing your arm in an animated way, saying don't let me forget to tell you about what happened to me in the bookstore later because she doesn't have time just yet to do so, your current talk is so gripping and so deliciously laughter-inducing. Even when her laughing gets to be ridiculously loud, she doesn't stop. Self-consciousness isn't something she beats her drum to and instead of annoying most of the people around her, many of them smile when they behold all her spilling-over tangible joy. She is a marvel. She likes to wear Vote For Pedro t-shirts to Zumba class. Her wholeness spills out everywhere and she's my friend.